| St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference
When one starts to think of crime and mystery conferences held anywhere in the world St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference would not be the first one that springs to mind.For most crime writers and fans (especially in North America) Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Malice Domestic and the late lamented Dead on Deansgate to name a few are much more recognisable.However of all the crime fiction events that are held here in the United Kingdom there is one, which has become an established part of the UK crime fiction scene and one of the longest running events. It also happens to have the most loyal attendees; it is St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference. Now in its eleventh year St Hilda’s (as it is fondly and colloquially known) is held every year in August amidst the splendour of St Hilda’s College, Oxford.One would be forgiven for thinking on arrival at the College that they have magically found themselves in the countryside, as while the College is set on grounds within walking distance from the Oxford town centre it is tucked away in what is considered to be a corner of paradise so tranquil the setting. St Hilda’s is situated on the banks of Cherwell and boasts views across the spires of Merton and Magdalen Colleges. Unlike other crime fiction events that take place St Hilda’s is uniquely different; while other conference normally have multi-tracked panels all running together and in different rooms at St Hilda’s this is not the case. St Hilda’s is considered to be a much more serious and academic event and therefore anyone that is invited to give a paper considers it to be not only an honour but realise that they will certainly have an attentive audience in front of them. Invited crime writers and other speakers give papers and the tone is more of a lecture than having a panel of writers solely talking about their writing. If you are under the impression that St Hilda’s is there just for you to talk about your work and books then you are wrong.Because of the way the conference was set up each year a theme is chosen and those invited to talk give a paper based on the theme but with their own individual slant to it.
So how did St Hilda’s start? Or one should say what led to the first conference taking place and how did that now lead into it now coming up to its twelfth year of existence? The first ever conference took place in 1994 and was the brainchild of Eileen Roberts who was and still is the Alumni Officer for St Hilda’s College. Eileen herself is a keen reader of crime fiction and part of her duties as Alumni Officer is to arrange events for the College’s senior members and thus in 1994 she decided that a weekend conference on crime fiction with the emphasis on women writers, especially those with an Oxford connection would go down well and it was felt that the conference would be of interest to quite a few people.
The first ever conference took place on the weekend of Friday 19th August to Sunday 21st August 1994 and so far with one exception it has been held on the same weekend ever since. The conference started on the Friday afternoon with a reception at the Bodleian Library at which the conference participants were able to view a selection of mystery writers archives. The archives were that of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Edmund Crispin, and Raymond Chandler. This was followed by the conference dinner, which was held at St Hilda’s where PD James was guest speaker. However since I started attending in 1998 the conference has started with a reception on the lawns of the College in the early evening followed by the conference dinner. In 1994, the conference swung into full mode on the Saturday morning where after an introduction by Mary Moore a crime writer and also Principal of St Hilda’s between 1980 and 1990 there were discussions on the work of Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie. This was befitting since the theme for the inaugural conference was “The Queen’s of Crime”. The first set of speakers at the conference included CWA Diamond Dagger recipient Robert Barnard, Kathy Ackley and Matthew Prichard. Others that gave papers that weekend included Lindsey Davis, the late Sarah Caudwell, Kate Charles, Margaret Yorke, Sharyn McCrumb, Peter Lovesey, Veronica Stallwood and Hazel Holt. From the industry point of view there were also papers by Literary Agent Lisanne Radice. The conference ended on the Sunday with dramatised mystery/crime readings.
Kate Charles who was also one of the speakers at the conference has also been involved from the beginning in organising the event. Both Kate Charles and Eileen Roberts have known each other as a result of their joint involvement in the Barbara Pym Society, which is also based at St Hilda’s College. Together they have been running the Barbara Pym Society for over ten years. With her knowledge of the speakers Kate Charles acted as liaison since she knew most of them.Since then Kate Charles has been seen as the co-organiser of the conference along with Eileen Roberts. They are a formidable team in the nicest possible way.
So what was the outcome of the first conference? According to Kate Charles the response was over whelming. It was an incredible success even though they only had around 25 participants. Kate Charles goes on to state that on the Sunday people were strongly expressing the view that they would like the event to take place again. In her discussions with Eileen she expressed the view that another conference should take place the following year and that if no one was willing to organise it then she would take it on herself. Since then Kate Charles and Eileen Roberts have worked in tandem to organise the yearly conference. Eileen does all the ground arrangements for example organising funds, bookings, and room assignments setting the various menus for the weekend while Kate has responsibility for speaker liaison. To ensure that the conference is run smoothly (and it is impressively run) the two of them meet several times a year to discuss themes, speakers, and topics and to formulate the final programme. It is a partnership that works extremely well together.
The following year 1995 the theme was “The Golden Age – There and Now”. The speakers that year included once again Robert Barnard but this time he was joined by Val McDermid, Deborah Crombie, Peter Walker, Catherine Aird, Rosemary Herbert, Janet Laurence, the late Sara Ann Freed, Barbara Peters and Colin Dexter.
In 1996 the theme was “The Historical Mystery”. Unlike in 1994 & 1995 the conference started in the early afternoon with a talk. The conference dinner that took place on the Friday night consisted of a traditional medieval fayre in keeping with the theme of the weekend and as a tribute to the late Ellis Peters who had sadly died the previous year. The conference speakers that year included the great and the good of historical crime fiction writers. Amongst those who graced the event and spoke were Deryn Lake, Edward Marston, Dean James, Elizabeth Eyre, Ian Morson, Peter Tremayne, Molly Brown, the late Kate Ross, HRF Keating, Alanna Knight, Gillian Linscott, Peter Lovesey, Amy Myers, Michael Pearce, Andrew Taylor, Laurie King and June Thomson.
Murder in Academia was the theme in 1997 and was befitting the fact that the conference was being held in a University College. The speaker at the conference dinner that year on the Friday was Val McDermid. Val McDermid has the benefit on knowing the College very well indeed as she is also a senior member of the College having graduated there in 1975. Some of the speakers that year were already familiar faces but a number of new speakers took part as well. These included Michelle Spring, Margaret Kinsman, Anne Perry, Judith Cutler, Jill Paton Walsh, Nora Kelly, Lev Raphael and Nancy Ellen Talburt.Like the previous year the conference started earlier than normal, in fact there was a workshop running from 10:30am until late afternoon on Making Crime Pay. This was followed by a welcome reception at the Morse Exhibition. One of the highlights of that weekend was Susan Moody in conversation with Colin Dexter author of the Inspector Morse series.
My introduction to St Hilda’s came in 1998 and was as a result of being persuaded by Thalia Proctor (who at the time was running the bookstall at the conference) and Lizzie Hayes (whom I help run Mystery Women).The theme in 1998 was Men (and Women) in Blue: The Police Detective in Fiction. For me it was like opening a big box of presents. It was at St Hilda’s that I first made the acquaintance of some of my favourite crime writers whom I had admired from afar such as Val McDermid, Andrew Taylor, Michelle Spring and the delightful Dean James. It was also at St Hilda’s that I was introduced to the delights of DorothyL. Did I feel apprehensive, yes, but that lasted only about an hour. Why? Because everybody there made you feel very welcome and not left out, it was if you were joining one big party. I learnt two things that weekend about crime writers. Firstly drinking with them is sheer fun but that in future I had better make sure that I don’t have any alcohol at the run up to the conference and secondly they have a wicked sense of humour and are amongst the nicest, most gregarious people one would ever want to spend time with.
In 1998 Robert Barnard chaired the conference and on the first night after the reception the conference dinner guest speaker was Dr Elizabeth Neville who was at the time the Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police Force. Some of the other speakers over the weekend included Dorothy Simpson, Gwendoline Butler, Priscilla Masters, Anthea Fraser, Joan Lock, M C Beaton, Stuart Pawson and Phil Gormley (a real Inspector of Police). While the main theme was Men (and Women) in Blue some of the sub-topics looked at and discussed included Writing the Police Detective, The Historical Police Detective, The Women Police Detective, The Real Police Detective, The Regional Police Detective and Masters of the Police Detective.
1999 saw Val McDermid act as Chair at the event and the theme for the weekend was “Partners in Crime”. Once again the speakers were a mixture of old and new. Some of the new speakers included Marcia Talley, Marjorie Eccles, Ann Granger, Joyce Holms, Betty Rowlands and Natasha Cooper. It might be wise to mention at this stage that a lot of the speakers have also attended St Hilda’s as participants and continue to do so even if they have not been invited to give a paper.
In 2000 once again Robert Barnard chaired the conference with the able assistance of Marcia Talley. The theme was “Mind Games, Psychology, Crime and Mystery”. As one has come to expect there was a mixture of former and new speakers giving papers.Some of the new speakers included Aline Templeton, Laura Wilson, Julia Wallis Martin and Lesley Grant-Adamson. On the Friday the speaker was Joyce Holms.Even I had to admit this was one of the few times I have seen an after dinner speaker have everybody literarily laughing so much that they are crying and trying hard not to fall off their chairs.Putting it mildly as an after dinner speaker Joyce Holms is something to behold. On the Saturday, the dinner was not held at St Hilda’s but St Edmunds Hall. It was quite a sight seeing a large number of guests walking into Oxford in all their finery towards St Edmunds Hall. But then again it just goes to add to the uniqueness of the event. The titles of the various papers that year were extensive and varied and ranged from “Game, Set and Match” by Anne Perry, “ Mapping the Murderers Mind” by Val McDermid, “Crime and Punishment” by Margaret Yorke to “Murder in Mind: Psychopaths and Ordinary people” by Michelle Spring and “From Social Work to Writing” by Alison Taylor.
The 2001 conference saw the emphases being placed on “The Scene of the Crime” and that was the theme for the weekend. Regular attendees at St Hilda’s are used to listening to diverse papers that are not only in depth but thought provoking as well and 2001 was no exception with papers from authors such as P D James, Andrew Taylor, Jessica Mann, Peter Robinson and Val McDermid. No one can attend St Hilda’s and feel that they have been short-changed. Two of the highlights of the weekend were Simon Brett presenting his golden age mystery spoof “A Crime in Rhyme” and the punting competition organised by Gillian Linscott on Sunday morning.
A lot of people have heard of the saying “A Female of the species is more dead pan than the male” and in 2002 the theme was a take on the saying “A Female of the Species….”. With Natasha Cooper once again doing the honours as Chair and papers from stalwarts such as Val McDermid, Andrew Taylor, Marcia Talley, Gillian Linscott and Anne Perry covering a wide array of viewpoints such as Mrs Pascal to Nancy Drew: Female Sleuths in Popular Fiction, Set a Thief to Catch a Thief, Sisters over the Centuries to an Unsuitable Job for a Man. There were also interesting papers from newcomers such as Margaret Maron, Elizabeth Corley, Clare Curzon and Carol Anne Davis whose paper on understanding the female serial killer was as frightening as it was enlightening.
In 2003 Natasha Cooper made it three years in a row as chairman as she once again chaired the conference on “Absent Friends and Future Loves”. It was an opportunity to look back at the various authors and the different eras of crime writing that had gone bye and what to look forward to. Simon Brett started the weekend off with an insightful and witty talk on “The Detection Club” while Robert Barnard spoke about Margery Allingham and Andrew Taylor took on Josephine Tey. Over the course of the weekend Michelle Spring gave a paper on Raymond Chandler entitled “Raymond Chandler: The Man With the Smoking Gun”, Marcia Talley took a look at American women mystery writers of the fifties and the sixties and Gillian Linscott took on Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes. Edward Marston rounded the Saturday off by talking about Ellis Peters’s Father Cadfael. The weekend also had Val McDermid and a panel looking at “New Directions” within the genre. However I am sure that for many of us that weekend was memorable not only for the excellent papers given by the various authors which also included Jo Hines, Christine Poulson and Julia Spencer-Fleming who spoke about G K Chesterton’s Father Brown but also Stephen Booth’s witty and poetic paper on “Motive? What Motive” which had just about everybody transfixed to their seats with enjoyment. For the first time in the history of the conference, 2003 saw St Hilda’s being moved from its usual weekend to the first weekend in September. Margaret Yorke was the conference guest of honour.
For me, the conference this year (2004) took on an added dimension. Why you may ask?In August 2004 I found myself (for only the second time in my life) presenting a paper entitled “A Look at Cross-Breeding within Crime Fiction” under the aegis of the main theme, which was “Crossing Boundaries”. This year I was the only new speaker. Tim Binyon who would have been one as well had to pull out due to illness.Marcia Talley gallantly stepped into the breach and covered the slot slated for him. The other speakers over the weekend included Laura Wilson, Natasha Cooper, Danuta Reah, Michelle Spring, Margaret Murphy Deborah Crombie, Keith Miles (Edward Marston) and Leslie Forbes. I can only say that being one of the first two speakers at the start of a conference is a sobering thought and it does wonders for ensuring that you don’t have too much to drink the night before or a late night.
It was also very enlightening to see and be involved (to a very small degree) with the conference from the other side. Despite my nervousness I can honestly say that I had a marvellous time. The support and encouragement was outstanding and I have never felt so contented to be standing up in a hall full of people before. With the added elegance and serenity of the Chair Andrew Taylor it turned out once again to be in my opinion one of the most memorable conferences.
While some may be put off by the fact that the conference is held in a woman’s college and thus by default they believe or feel that men are not really welcome, this is not the case. It is true that the attendees are mainly female, but one of St Hilda’s most loyal attendees is Richard Donnenberg who has attended every single conference since its inception.
So how have people come to hear about St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference? The responses have been varied. Andrew Taylor heard about it from “Red Herrings” which is the official magazine for the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain. Richard Donnenberg read about it in a specialist US crime magazine and immediately rang the College and booked a place. Flyers and articles in writer’s magazines have also brought it to people’s attention. Others only knew about it when they were invited to give a paper or the after dinner speech. Marcia Talley heard about it from Kate Charles when they met at a mystery conference in Washington DC. For the “old girls” they are more than likely to have heard about it when they saw the leaflet about the first conference in 1994 when it came along with the College newsletter.
What’s so good about St Hilda’s and why does it stand out from the rest? Where does one start? Having spoken to numerous participants both attendees and speakers the consensus appears to be the same. It is an extremely laidback conference with no airs or graces. Everybody stays together on the College grounds and everybody takes their meals together. You will never know whom your sitting next to at the breakfast table or the dinner table or even in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Hall where for some time now the papers have been presented and where there are excellent acoustics. While everyone that attends does receive a name badge you cannot really tell who is an author/speaker or attendee. The only way in which those present are differentiated upon is to show whether or not they are former students of the College. There is no pretension.
There is also ample free time on the Sunday morning to do what you want prior to the Conference starting again at 11:00am. Over the years attendees have done various things like attend a service at St Cross Church where Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane got married, join a Dorothy Sayers tour of Somerville and Balliol Colleges, sleep in trying to recover from the late night festivities, go for a walk or huddle in the corner in the Senior Common Room with the Sunday papers and more recently if you are feeling energetic join the punting competition on the River Cherwell. Natasha Cooper who has not only acted as chair on a number of occasions but has also presented papers states that she keeps on coming back not solely because she presents papers but because of amongst other things the quality of the speakers and the audience, the size (normally the number of those attending is not much more than one hundred), the affectionate atmosphere that builds up during the weekend between readers and writers. Kathy Ackley a former academic who now organises a yearly programme from across the pond called “British Mystery and Crime Writers” was one of the very first speakers at the first ever conference. Over the last couple of years St Hilda’s has been added to the tour at the end of the programme and says that the reasons why she keeps on coming back are similar to those already expressed by Natasha Cooper but also include the interesting themes each year, the wine reception before dinner and the gatherings after dinner. In short its very friendly atmosphere and the positive experience that she has had over the years. Other author participants that I spoke to have been eager to corroborate this view and appear to be in harmony as to the reasons why others keep on coming back time and time again. They feel that the reasons are the same as those already mentioned but can also be stretched to include the chance to meet and talk with readers and other writers, the wonderful ambience, the collegiality and the academic nature of the contributions.
Fantasy and science fiction author Juliet E McKenna who is not only a regular attendee but an “old girl” of St Hilda’s sums it up as follows when asked what keeps on bringing her back to the conference – “ There’s the attraction of a weekend’s intellectual stimulation that has nothing to do with work. There’s sharing an enthusiasm with like-minded people and meeting new, friendly, like-minded people”. She goes on to state that – “ As aworking wife and mother, there’s also the undeniable appeal of a weekend with no cooking or other domestic responsibilities, just doing something for me! I also come away each year with a list of authors new to me who I’m eager to read so now I actively look forward to that”. Crime Writer’s Association multi dagger award winning author Andrew Taylor is a bit more forthcoming when he states his reasons for coming back. While most of them are similar to what has already been mentioned amongst other things for him it is the opportunity to meet friends and the ability to talk about crime fiction with knowledgeable people, the fact that speakers join the audience and members of the audience sometimes become speakers.Most importantly everyone ends up sharing bottles in the Senior Common Room as he exclaims – “truly democratic”.
Even attendees whom are not authors have similar responses. They see the conference as being unique; it is as it were the only show in town. The fact that you don’t have to rush from panel to panel, the people, the fact that it is small, intimate, interesting and thought provoking, a good mixture of readers and writers and also there is the added reinforcement that there are other people who think that it is normal to have several thousand books. Lizzie Hayes’s neatly expresses it when she says “elegance sums it up rather well, after attending St Hilda’s I come home feeling refreshed and invigorated”. Richard Donnenberg who is one of the few that has a complete record of attendance, like others is effusive in his praise for St Hilda’s. For him what makes him return year after year is not only the splendid setting (I mean who can resist attending a conference amid the splendour and the spires of Oxford?) but also the fact that speakers prepare and present papers and therefore really have something to say that is new. While he believes that the papers are not strictly academic they do show considerable research and thinking, thus to him the level of presentations and discussions are more scholarly than other conferences.
Kate Charles the co-organiser also confirms St Hilda’s popularity. As far as she can tell it is not only because it is small and intimate but because it has no commercial motivation (as opposed to the now defunct Dead on Deansgate), it is prestigious for the speakers as they are invited to speak by invitation only and the roll call of authors both from the UK and elsewhere that have given papers over the years show that they are well and truly good at their craft.
St Hilda’s has always been seen as a much more serious conference because of its academic connections and that is one of the things that attendees like about it. Juliet McKenna believes that it is a credit to the crime fan community that there’s enthusiasm for both approaches. That said, she also goes on to explain that there are always plenty of laughs at St Hilda’s along with the intellectual stimulation, certainly if Simon Brett is performing. One thing that she has also noticed is that while authors always take their subject seriously they don’t take themselves too seriously. Juliet also points out that she like the way that the “themed” approach takes the edge off more commercial considerations so that authors don’t give any real impression of being there under pressure to “sell” their books. Richard Donnenberg also comments on this and his reasoning is that for him what makes Bouchercon so attractive is the size and the opportunity to meet so many authors, and the ability to select some interesting presentations or panel discussions. However, he is also quick to indicate that the most interesting talks are the scholarly ones and he finds St Hilda’s full of them. In fact it is the “serious academic” aspect of the conference that attracts him.
Kathy Ackley is delighted at academic aspect of the conference. Nevertheless as a retired academic she feels the conference is much less serious then any of the conferences that she has attended in her field (English Literature). She also believes that it makes a difference from the off the cuff talks that one gets at Bouchercon for instance. She thinks that there is something very positive to be said for having to prepare a paper that you spend a good deal of time thinking about and writing before appearing before an audience eager to hear what you have to say on your topic. It provides a depth , perhaps that other conferences might not have.
For Lizzie Hayes it boils down to the fact that she is amazed at the different aspects of the themes explored by the speakers and the incredible quality of the papers presented.Dean James manager of Houston’s Murder by the Book on the other hand sums it up by stating that he finds it “refreshingly different. For one thing, you don’t get authors making the same old “sales pitch” for their books. With this approach there is time to consider topics more fully and in greater depth than at the standard mystery convention panel”. Anne Perry concurs and says that she loves the fact that it is considered to be “seriously academic”. She goes on further to state that the intelligent, non-competitive attitude helps and the papers given contribute real insight, not just blowing one’s own trumpet. For Leslie Forbes the opportunity to talk in-depth about deeper political, social and literary aspects of crime writing is an added bonus.
So what about its longevity? Richard Donnenberg again states that “Right from the beginning St Hilda’s was not a commercial conference. No big sponsors, no media events, no expensive hotel and not the flavour of a mystery fair that you find at some of the other conferences. The audience was there to learn more about crime literature and at the end of the first conference it was found that people had profited from the insights of the speakers and were willing to hear more. This aspect of learning still dominates the conference programming and keeps bringing attendees back”. Dean James maintains that its longevity is due to – The astuteness of the organisers in continuing to choose interesting themes and finding excellent speakers”. Sue Lord another long standing attendee attributes its longevity due to the fact that it is different, the lovely surroundings, it also feels like “home” and not only are the authors very friendly but so are the “crowd”. Both Marcia Talley and Anne Perry feel that its longevity is also due in part to the social aspect that is clearly present all over the weekend. When you consistently hear comments like – it is one of the most civilised ways to spend a weekend- beautiful surroundings, charming people with great variety, and yet much in common, and the time to indulge in conversation” then you know that you must be doing something right. Andrew Taylor confirms the social aspect as well. For him it’s more like one big weekend party than anything else.He goes on to state “it lacks the them and us quality that distinguishes so many conferences – fans on one side, and performing authors on the others. A place of good conversation!” This is borne out by the fact that invariably on the Friday and Saturday night people stay up late until the we hours of the following morning in the Senior Common Room chatting away about all things crime fiction and anything else that might come up.
Have there been any sessions that have stood out over the years? Yes! Juliet E McKenna particularly remembers the illustrated talk on Agatha Christie’s cover art, a talk by the renowned agent Lisanne Radice and an editor of Pan Macmillan (as it then was). There has also been a whodunit one-act play by a group of undergraduates who were off to the Edinburgh fringe, a reading of a Dorothy Sayers short story that had only been previously heard on the radio in the 50’s and in which a young Peter Wimsey consults an elderly Sherlock Holmes over a missing kitten.
So how does the conference fit in with the college? According to Kate Charles very well indeed.St Hilda’s College and the conference have had a very satisfying and mutually advantageous relationship. The current Principal, Lady Judith English is an avid crime reader and very supportive of the conference. This year she attended many of the sessions and next year (2005) hopes to bring her American book group over to participate. I understand that when she was being interviewed for the job a few years ago the fact that the College had a crime and mystery weekend was one of the things that convinced her that it was the right job for her. St Hilda’s also has a number of links not only with crime writers but also writers of science fiction and fantasy novels. Some of their senior members (former students) not only come back to attend the conference as participants but also give papers such as Val McDermid, Marianne McDonald and Juliet E McKenzie. In fact, Margaret Yorke, who was Assistant Librarian at St Hilda’s many years ago, came back in 1995 to give a talk on the history of St Hilda’s Library.
Has it turned out the way it was expected back in 1994? According to Kate Charles it has. On being asked she states that –I certainly never thought we would be looking towards the 12th annual conference! Its popularity has increased along with its prestige in the crime fiction world”.
Has it changed over the years? Having only been attending since 1998 I am reliably told that it has to a certain extent but that the changes have been subtle and have made it all the better. Even so, it has not changed so much that it is no longer what was envisaged in 1994. Over the last couple of years a number of traditions have started to take place. St Hilda’s has now become the unofficial place where Mystery Women hold their annual meeting and therefore their unofficial home, a regular punting competition now takes place on a Sunday morning for those that are energetic enough to punt or paddle. Now on a Saturday night Mystery Women also host a drinks party to which everyone attending the conference is invited. Apropos that, is there anything attendees would like to see at St Hilda’s? One subject that appears to keep on cropping up is that the writers that are present would love the opportunity to quiz a panel of readers about their likes and dislikes!
So how are the themes decided on year after year? According to Kate Charles it is by taking soundings from speakers and attendees over the weekend. The theme for 2005 came together at lunch on the Saturday while she was brainstorming with Andrew Taylor and Marcia Talley.
The overwhelming and outstanding view on St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference is long may it continue.
In 2005 the conference is due to be held from Friday 19th August to Sunday 21st August. The theme is “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. Further information about the conference can be obtained from Eileen Roberts, St Hilda’s College, Oxford OX4 1DY, United Kingdomor by e-mail :- Eileen.Roberts@st-hildas.oxford.ac.uk